For the country that was once said to be the location of the fountain of youth, America isn’t living up to its fame.
According to a recent study released in the journal, Circulation, Americans have a shorter life span compared with people of nearly every other high-income country. By tracking 78,865 women and 44,354 men over 34 years, researchers found a strong link between lifestyle and longevity. In fact, they suggested that women could add 14 more years to their lives and men could add 12 more by making smarter lifestyle choices, including:
- Eating nutritious foods
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking
- Drinking only in moderation
It’s likely you have heard all this before, but between raising a family and maintaining a career, you have little time left over to follow this advice. Or perhaps you’re already overweight – one of the primary barriers to longevity – and don’t know where to begin. Dr. Erin Marcus, an internist with the University of Miami Health System, offers common sense suggestions to become healthier, little by little, day by day. Dr. Marcus is an associate director of the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital Internal Medicine Residency program.
- Eat right.
“Cutting sodas, juice, and sweet beverages is a big step in the right direction. Drinking soda is like drinking a candy bar – the sugar and calories are that significant. Drink water or unsweetened tea instead,” says Dr. Marcus. She also recommends avoiding processed foods.In the study, those who ate five servings of vegetables and four servings of fruit daily scored higher on the longevity scale. If you don’t have the time or finances to prepare or purchase that much produce, try frozen. “It’s less expensive and easy to prepare, just use the plain frozen; skip the varieties with sauce. Lemon and herbs make tasty seasonings.”The study’s healthful diet criteria included eating one or more servings of nuts or beans a day, avoiding red meat completely, and limiting salt.
- Exercise 30 minutes daily.
Marcus advises people to simply: Move more throughout the day.
“Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park your car farther from the store, and take three 10-minute walks a day, fitting in a walk during your lunch hour.” If you live in a neighborhood where walking isn’t practical or safe, walk around your house and stay active during commercial breaks while watching TV. Mopping, vacuuming, and washing windows qualifies as the moderate exercise the study authors suggest. Other moderately strenuous activities include brisk walks, easy bicycling or tennis doubles. Vigorous exercise, also encouraged by the researchers, includes jogging, fast cycling, tennis singles, basketball, and soccer. Need an incentive?
Consider this: Regular exercisers were 56 percent less likely to die for any reason during the study period, compared to the inactive subjects. Pressed for time? Combine socializing with physical activity. “Do something active as a family or go dancing, as some of my older patients do. The more you make movement a natural part of your life, the more likely you are to keep going,” Dr. Marcus says.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
A body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy. Again, Dr. Marcus says that incremental actions add up to results. “Try eating lighter meals at night, when you’re less active. Wearing a FitBit incentivizes some people to get their 10,000 steps daily, but there’s no scientific data proving that they help you lose weight.”
- Don’t smoke.
According to the study, never-smokers had a much lower risk of death from cancer or heart disease than participants who smoked or even former smokers. Need help kicking the habit? Register for a smoking cessation class. “It’s important to discourage young people from smoking, as well as vaping. Vape fluid has highly concentrated nicotine and contains carcinogens,” Dr. Marcus says. As a society, she also believes we should keep clean air laws in place. “Air pollution puts non-smokers at risk for chronic lung diseases such as asthma.”
- Drink only in moderation.
Dr. Marcus departs from the study’s assertion that women can safely drink between five and 15 grams of alcohol daily and men between five and 30 grams daily. “There’s some scientific evidence suggesting that even moderate alcohol consumption increases the risk of certain cancers. “ In individuals with the disease of alcoholism, even one drink is dangerous. It also adds a lot of calories to your diet. While some tout alcohol’s stress-reducing qualities, Dr. Marcus isn’t buying it. “There are healthier ways to manage stress, from meditating to physical activity and spending time with people you love.”Study participants who drank more than 30 grams of alcohol per day were 25 percent more likely to die prematurely than moderate drinkers.
The researchers believe that adopting healthy habits “could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in U.S. adults.” Dr. Marcus doesn’t disagree, but takes a pragmatic approach. “In medical school epidemiology classes, I learned that association doesn’t necessarily equal causation. Just strive to be a little healthier each day. As you feel better, it creates a virtuous cycle of health.”
Nancy Moreland is a contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her articles also appear in the Chicago Tribune.